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Liberals and Arguments

The Nonsequitur (blogged about a few days ago) attempts to identify fallacies from political columns and blogs, but as it turns out, the majority of its examples come from conservative columns. Why is that? They write, We have spoken about this apparent lack of balance in our note on bias: most “liberal/progressive” newspaper pundits–unlike their conservative colleagues–simply don’t make arguments. Further, they state:

over the two years that we’ve been doing this, we’ve had the opportunity to get a pretty good look at the punditry in the major daily newspapers. We have pointed out numerous times in posts that for the most part, conservative columnists defend their positions with arguments. For this reason we admire them. We also think that few liberal columnists argue as energetically as their conservative colleagues. Since the liberals don’t argue, you will find the conservatives strongly represented on our pages.

It is hard to say that most liberal columnists don’t make arguments. Many liberal columns (and you can find a good collection at workingforchange.com ) have points to make. That is their aim. In an age where even authors use their Nobel acceptance speeches to blast the Bush Administration, it’s crazy to say that liberal writers are not arguing with convction.

Look, for example at Molly Ivins (recently deceased). She wrote with caustic wit about the hypocrisies and contradictions of leaders, with a good percentage of columns devoted to highlighting social problems. As columnists go, I think she wrote with subtlety and wit. These pieces start with a lunacy/unmet need (usually a personal anecdote), talk about how the current administration is ignoring/not solving the problem and then point to an obvious solution (which the current administration is unlikely to do). There is often not much discussion about whether the proposed solution actually works. These types of columns (especially Frank Rich’s) are laced with irony and mockery, but that can be construed as having an argumentative claim.

Thom Friedman is a columnist who uses personal anecdotes to make general observations about internationalization. It’s a minefield for hasty generalizations (and there’s another trap Friedman falls into: because Friedman travels in elite circles, the people he encounters are frequently elite as well, with attitudes that are not-so-typical). His columns could be summarized thus, “Americans may not be aware of attitude/innovation that Worker X in Indonesia/India is having”. (I wrote more about Friedman’s anecdotal style and why it is not evil).

Nick Kristof fuses advocacy with personal reporting. His columns frequently have positions, but they are based upon personal observations from being live on the scene.

I don’t think many conservative journalists do a lot of personal reporting (this was different during the Cold War, when quite a number reported on Soviet oppression). In that respect, they can best be compared with liberal bloggers who don’t normally have the resources to do investigation on their own. Instead they have political/economic points to make from which Issue X is one example.

One area where there is a lot of argumentation is in foreign policy columns. These kinds of columnists (on both sides) have serious points to make and try to assemble convincing evidence. The problem of course is that foreign policy is by nature speculative. You can point to evidence that Iraq possesses WMD or you can say that our allies would welcome a tougher approach to sanctions against North Korea, but how can anyone know for sure?

One thing that distinguishes bloggers from columnists (I believe) is that they frequently link to oppositional viewpoints even if they vehemently disagree with /misunderstand it. Another thing is that bloggers rarely intend to make a full-fledged argument. Instead, their attitude evolves over several posts. The better blogger recognizes this, and when an issue comes along which riles him, he will eventually write a longish and more coherent opinion piece that sums up the cumulative insights from his previous posts.

Another characteristic about bloggers (especially the popular ones) is that they rarely make blatant political arguments in the context of a blog, preferring to let  people on their comment section battle it out. Instead, they will open the discussion with a link and a  meta-observation–not so much about the argument itself but why the person  is making this argument (I see this a lot in the otherwise excellent blog by Matt Yglesias ).

Finally a note about politics and me. I consider myself politically attuned ( I read many political blogs), but I rarely like to blog about politics. The reason is because political blogging is a fulltime job. You have to devote a lot of time and energy to do it well. Political blogging can lose relevance over time. So in 2002 you were outraged at Bush’s protectionist policies towards steel. Guess what? Nobody cares now. (hardly anyone cared back then as well). The aspects of the blog that stand the test of time may not be political arguments anyway, but the personal anecdotes and random metaphysical observation.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • jcasey 3/28/2007, 6:09 am

    Thanks for blogging about our site. But I’d stress that “having points to make” is not the same–by a long shot–as making “arguments.” Keep in mind also that we’re interest in major newspaper punditry (and only occasionally blogs). At that level, again, I’d say aside from Krugman, liberals do not argue–i.e., stake out positions they defend with clearly articulated reasons.

  • rjnagle 3/28/2007, 7:26 am

    Maybe fundamentally the question boils down to “what is an argument?”

    Is a persuasive essay by definition an argument?

    Can an argument emerge after the presentation of evidence? Perhaps liberals may argue empirically, while conservatives are more inclined to argue on the basis of fundamental principles. Also, I think compassion/empathy plays a key part in understanding the liberal method for making an argument. I sympathize, therefore I understand the problem. It is not entirely based on rational analysis. However, looking at Darfur for instance, the urgency of the need to propose a solution derives from an appreciation of the human dimensions of the problem.

  • jcasey 3/28/2007, 8:56 am

    I’d say not all forms of persuasion are arguments. Arguments–at least in the narrow sense we use the term on thenonsequitur–attempt to establish or demonstrate controversial (in the sense of being subject to reasonable disagreement) conclusions. But let me give an example of the way E.J.Dionne (an alleged liberal) and Krauthammer (a definite conservative) would handle an issue such as stem cell research. While Krauthammer will argue that stem cell research is not worth it or is morally wrong, Dionne will ignore that question, and instead discuss the meta-political issues involved. That’s certainly a subject worth discussing, but Krauthammer doesn’t have a liberal counterpart in the Post–one that is who works to establish the truth of his positions. It is in this sense that we say that Argumentative writing is dominated (in major newspapers) by conservatives.

  • rjnagle 3/28/2007, 9:50 am

    Dionne is not a good example here. He’s a pollster/political analyst. There are other liberals out there more devoted to discussions of policy on weblogs and other newspapers. Fahreed Zakaria, etc.

  • jcasey 3/28/2007, 10:13 am

    I’d disagree with that. Dionne is a liberal-leaning op-ed writer. That’s the role he plays at the WaPo. Zakaria isn’t a liberal in the same sense in which Krauthammer or Will is a conservative. And he certainly doesn’t approach op-ed writing in the same argumentative way.

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